By Thomas Lambrecht
Bishop Sharma Lewis (Mississippi) has responded to two clergy persons who performed a same-sex wedding in January. The Revs. Elizabeth Davidson and Paige Swaim-Pressley officiated at the wedding ceremony of a “non-binary” couple in Tupelo, Mississippi. The term “non-binary” means that one or both persons participating in the wedding ceremony do not identify exclusively as male or female. The couple had reportedly met the two clergy persons when the clergy served as chaplains at Millsaps College, a United Methodist-affiliated school in Jackson, Mississippi.
According to a report from United Methodist Insight, a complaint was filed against the two clergy persons in February. Attempts to reach a just resolution of the complaint stalled and the two clergywomen requested a mediator be brought into the talks, which is allowed by the Book of Discipline. Bishop Lewis reportedly declined. According to Religion News Service (RNS), the clergywomen have been asked to surrender their clergy credentials or face a church trial. In the meantime, Lewis has reportedly requested the clergy persons be placed on involuntary leave. The Mississippi Board of Ordained Ministry Executive Committee would have to approve this request.
The “Traditional Plan” passed by the 2019 General Conference included provisions for a minimum penalty for clergy convicted in a church trial for “conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.” The minimum penalty for a first offense is one year’s suspension without pay. The minimum penalty for a second offense is termination of conference membership and revocation of credentials of ordination (Discipline, Par. 2711.3). Notably, the request by Bishop Lewis for immediate surrender of credentials goes to the maximum penalty.
Not In Virginia Anymore?
Bishop Lewis’ actions in the Mississippi case contrast sharply with her response to a similar case when she was the bishop in Virginia. In 2022, the Virginia Conference requested a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council alleging the failure of Bishop Lewis to follow the proper procedure for resolving a complaint.
According to briefs filed in the case, a pastor performed a same-sex wedding in September 2019. That same month, complaints were filed against the pastor. By January 2020, the supervisory process had failed to reach a just resolution, and Bishop Lewis referred the matter to a counsel for the church to proceed with charges and a trial. However, no charges were filed, no Committee on Investigation hearing was held, and no progress was made in resolving the complaints. Through emails sent to the accused pastor, Bishop Lewis made clear that she remained in control of the process during this time. In fact, she argued in her brief that she has six years (up to the limit of the statute of limitations) for charges to be filed. To this day, over three years later, no charges have been filed, and the accused pastor has not been held accountable for his violation of the Discipline. (The pastor has not been placed on involuntary leave, either.)
It is unknown why Bishop Lewis seems to have taken a firmer stand in the Mississippi case than she did in the Virginia case. One hopes that she will not pull a repeat and turn the case over to a counsel of the church, only to sit on it for years (or until the Book of Discipline changes).
Does the Discipline Apply?
In the RNS article, “Swaim-Presley and Davidson say the Book of Discipline is silent on the topic of weddings between two non-binary people, while, on other matters, it directs deacons and elders to act according to their consciences.”
The Discipline defines marriage as between “a man and a woman” (Par. 161C). Any marriage between persons outside that definition is contrary to church teaching and performing such a wedding would be disobedience to the Discipline. Further, one could argue that both members of the couple being “non-binary” means that they are both of the same sex or gender.
The clergy persons argue that the Discipline recognizes the right to civil disobedience. “We recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced” (Par. 164F). They justify their acting in defiance of the Discipline as an act of civil disobedience against what they consider an unjust church rule.
However, this situation is not in civil society, involving governmental legislation and courts, but in the church. In civil society, people have little recourse when faced with an unjust law. If unable to change the law, their only other option is to leave the country. In the church, however, clergy voluntarily submit to church rules. If they find they disagree so deeply with church rules that they feel compelled to disobey, they have the option of freely withdrawing from the denomination and joining another church that has beliefs more in line with their own. Integrity would demand that they do so, rather than cause conflict in the church by disobeying its rules.
In addition, our Discipline goes on to say regarding civil disobedience, “Even then, respect for law should be shown by refraining from violence and by being willing to accept the costs of disobedience.” It seems these clergy persons want to have it both ways. They want to be free to pursue “ecclesiastical disobedience” but not have to accept the consequences of potential suspension or loss of credentials.
Judicial Council Rules “No Abeyance”
This all takes place in the context of the concept of holding complaints involving LGBTQ persons in abeyance. (According to AskTheUMC: “The term ‘abeyance’ means ‘delay.’ It does not mean a refusal to implement the Discipline. It means delaying further action on certain kinds of charges for a limited period of time and for particular reasons.”). That idea was part of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation put forward in early 2020. The idea was that, since the impending 2020 General Conference would hopefully pass the Protocol and ultimately eliminate the chargeable offenses related to LGBTQ persons. It did not make sense at the time to pursue complaints regarding actions that would in a few short months be no longer contrary to the Discipline.
However, five months became four years and support for the Protocol waned among progressives and centrists. While the idea of holding complaints in abeyance was always up to the decision of individual bishops, the rationale for abeyance had passed. With the third postponement of General Conference, Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and UM Action all announced they would no longer refrain from filing complaints involving LGBTQ persons. (Very few complaints have been filed, and none of these organizations filed the complaint against the clergy in Mississippi.)
Recently issued Judicial Council Decision 1483 states, “It is only in the context of ongoing or imminent civil or criminal proceedings that abeyance can be contemplated. Therefore, Paragraph 2 is a prescriptive statement that directly affirms the abeyance or moratorium and constitutes a call to action that runs counter to the Discipline.”
The Discipline provides that, “A complaint may be held in abeyance with the approval of the Board of Ordained Ministry if civil authorities are involved or their involvement is imminent on matters covered by the complaint” (Par. 362.1g). That is meant to cover a situation where a clergy person might be charged with breaking a civil law and put on trial. In such cases, the church complaint process needs to take a back seat, so as not to impinge on the civil proceedings.
The idea of abeyance was always a bit dicey under church law. Traditionalists were willing to support the concept in the interest of reducing conflict in the church while we anticipated an imminent amicable separation. Due to the postponement of General Conference, no amicable separation plan has been adopted, and the current separation is often not amicable in some annual conferences.
With this latest ruling, the Judicial Council has taken abeyance off the table regarding complaints involving LGBTQ persons.
It is encouraging to see Bishop Lewis take firm action to enforce the Book of Discipline’s prohibition of same-sex weddings, provided that she follows through with a trial. We urge that fair process be followed and any church trial handled with the seriousness and sensitivity such a proceeding deserves.
The RNS article states that “both clergy had left Millsaps for nonprofit roles by the time they officiated the wedding in January.” Because neither clergy person is serving as pastor of a church, it is unclear what the impact of a suspension or involuntary leave would have on their position. Presumably the nonprofits with which each works agree with their stance on same-sex weddings and would not suspend or remove them from their positions. The bishop or annual conference could not remove them from their non-church positions, although the bishop could withdraw their appointments, forcing them to take a leave of absence as clergy while continuing in their nonprofit roles. If clergy credentials are essential to their nonprofit work, the loss or suspension of those credentials could impact their ability to do their jobs. Primarily, it would mean that they could not be involved in sacramental ministry, administering Baptism and Holy Communion, nor could they perform any more weddings for anyone.
It is widely expected that the General Conference in 2024 will remove the prohibitions against same-sex weddings in the Book of Discipline. What the two clergy persons have done illegally now would then no longer be illegal. If their credentials are removed this year, would they then be readmitted to ordained ministry next year? In this instance, it might seem that a one-year suspension or a leave of absence from ordained ministry might be the more appropriate penalty.
What this situation points out is that, as long as traditionalists remain in The United Methodist Church, the existing terms of the Discipline will be expected to be enforced. The best way forward for those who want to affirm and celebrate same-sex marriage would be to allow those traditionalists unwilling to support that to graciously exit the denomination. It makes no sense to try to coerce traditionalist congregations to remain United Methodist, where they will be a stumbling block to the “inclusive” agenda.